Picture, if you will, an ordinary American supermarket. From the outside, it looks just like any other supermarket. And yet, when a stranger arrives from a distant part of town to pick up a few groceries, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s something unusual about this place. Nothing seems to be where it’s supposed to be. Where he expects to find cereal, there are cleaning products. The bakery has been mysteriously replaced with a floral department. And the produce department is on the wrong side of the store. This man thought that he was just making a trip to the store to do his grocery shopping, but instead he has bought himself a trip… to the Twilight Zone.
OK, so apparently I do a pretty lousy Rod Serling impersonation here, but I’m sure at lease some of you can probably relate. As a single guy who for some reason finds it necessary to eat food every so often to survive (it’s a pesky habit I just can’t quite seem to get rid of for some reason,) I find myself in grocery stores on a fairly regular basis. For the vast majority of those impromptu shopping trips, I stick to one or two particular stores (most often the QFC in Downtown, or the Fred Meyer in Overlake) and may occasionally make a trip to a different store for something specific (like the occasional Trader Joe’s run, for example.) Given the comprehensive selection of groceries available between these two stores, I rarely find it necessary to go elsewhere for my grocery needs, but every so often some situation arises where I might be in a different part of town and need to grab a couple of things, and there’s a store that just happens to be along the way. So instead of making the trip over to your usual store on the way home, I just stop into the other store. It’s got the same sign on the front as the one you usually go to, so just how different can it be?
It turns out it can be a lot more different than you’d think. There are some chains that manage to standardize their store layouts to at least some degree, but in a lot of cases these days, supermarkets just end up being put wherever there happens to be some room to put one, which doesn’t always end up being as convenient as some people might like it to be. The Downtown Bellevue QFC is a good example of this. It’s a nice store, but it’s also an older store (built in the mid Sixties, if I recall from some of my badly neglected newspaper research) that appears to have been expanded on a number of occasions over the years, resulting in a particularly odd layout that was rather confusing for quite a while until I got used to it. Even now I still have trouble finding stuff on occasion in that store. Another interesting example is the Broadway Market QFC over on Capitol Hill in Seattle, which is a grocery store that’s basically been integrated into the first floor of a mini-mall with a number of other shops on the upper level. But in a nutshell, what this amounts to is that quite often, it can be a lot more difficult to standardize the layout of a grocery store than it might look. And it also means that if you wander too far from your usual store, it can be a lot easier to get yourself lost in a typical American supermarket than you think.
I mean, this isn’t supposed to be difficult. It’s a grocery store, for crying out loud. And when you’re at a grocery store, it would seem not unreasonable to expect that you would be able to find groceries. And to be fair, when you look around you, the items in the aisle surrounding you would seem to fall more less into that definition. The only problem is that none of those items happen to be the ones you’re looking for. All you’re trying to do is get some milk and something to make for dinner tomorrow night, and practically everything in the store is in the wrong place. Eventually you do manage to get your bearings (although it can be surprisingly easy to end up making an entire loop of the outer perimeter of the store before you somehow manage to stumble onto the dairy case). And even once you’ve managed that, it’s rarely the end of your troubles. You’d think that on a walkthrough of a grocery store an entire aisle jam-packed with 200 different varieties of sugar-soaked breakfast cereal in boxes that look like an explosion at the Technicolor factory would be a rather difficult thing to miss, but you’d be wrong on that one, especially when it happens to be on the exact opposite side of where it’s “supposed” to be. And by the time you’re trying to find the pasta and wondering why there’s an entire shelf full of moderately overpriced organic flours and bulk beans sitting where the canned veggies are supposed to be, you come to the conclusion that you’re lost. In a freakin’ grocery store, of all places. Eventually, you get sick of aimless wandering, go pay for the few items you managed to stumble onto, and head off, wondering why the heck you didn’t just go to your regular store. By now, the five minutes you might have saved by going to the more convenient store along the way instead of going a bit out of your way to your regular store on the way home have inevitably been wasted on aimless wandering, and there’s a good chance you didn’t even manage to find everything you had on your shopping list. At least you learned a valuable lesson in the process, right? Right? Not that it’ll stop you from repeating the same thing over again at a different time in a different store.
You may not actually be shopping in the Twilight Zone, but that doesn’t mean you need a creepy narrator or a slow descent into madness to get yourself lost in the supermarket.